Sunday, June 13, 2010

On the controversial matter of literature in the bathroom

A couple of weeks ago in Deborah Solomon’s interview with John Waters in the Sunday Times, I read this disturbing exchange:

Is there anyone you would actually kill if you knew you could get away with it?

I find it repellent when people do yoga exercises at the gate in airports. I want to kill them.
That’s reasonable.
There are little things that get on my nerves, like people who have reading material in their powder room. When you go in someone’s house, and next to the toilet they have a huge basket of magazines, I find that repellent. I recommend against straining while reading.

I made a mental note then and there never to invite John Waters to my house, and if he ever happened to come over, to discourage him from using any of our bathrooms. This may seem like a draconian measure, given that John Waters appears to be a very amusing person and I enjoy the company of amusing persons, but in this matter of bathroom reading material I fear we might come to blows.
I bring this up because June happens to be BATHROOM READING MONTH (it is also Effective Communications Month, but we won’t be addressing that, for obvious reasons; and Surf Music Month, which is just plain heartwarming.) and in the spirit of the month I feel that I should own up to our household’s stance in the Décor slash Literary Taste discussion. It is this:
All our bathrooms contain reading matter, and not only that, but each bathroom contains reading matter on a specific theme.
The truth is, it never occurred to me it could be otherwise because in the parental home this is the way it is done and was always done.

It never fails to shock me to come upon some irrefutable evidence of how like my mother I am. Because we are so different.

If anyone ever asks me about my mother one of the very first things I will say, after alluding to her youthful beauty and seven suitors, is how unlike we are. She is self-contained; I am emotionally needy. She has a closet full of Chanel suits and matching pillbox hats; I am the Imelda Marcos of sensible shoes. She dislikes and fears dogs; my toes are – at this moment – being licked clean by Daisy & Bruno, the beloved barking spaniels. My mother can identify the warp, weft and provenance of any Oriental carpet from across the room; moths eat my carpets, and mock me. My mother can immolate herself on the altar of historically correct wallpaper and fabric; while I can only expatiate on varieties of early Christian martyrdom. My mother can- and frequently does – use the word fenestration with a straight face.

But to return to the trait considered so offensive by John Waters. Another example of how my mother and I differ: our bathroom reading material. Her downstairs bathroom offers an impressive selection of theoretically humorous books, among them, The Darwin Awards; Age Doesn’t Matter Unless you are a Cheese; Does a Lobsterman Wear Pants?; Bread Any Good Nooks Lately?; Pogo; Treasury of Atrocious Puns; Uppity Women of the Renaissance; Outhouses by Famous Architects.

Whereas our downstairs bathroom contains our collection of etiquette books, which could hardly be referred to as humorous, nothing being more serious than proper behavior. Some gems of the collection are:
Manners for Millions, by Sophie Hadida
Perfect Behavior, A Guide for Ladies and Gentlemen in All Social Crises*, by Donald Ogden Stewart (1922)
Children are People and Ideal Parents are Comrades, by Emily Post (1940)
Society Small Talk or What to Say and When to Say it, by A Member of the Aristocracy
Poise and How to Attain It, by D. Starke (1916), in the MENTAL EFFICIENCY Series
Hints on Etiquette and Usages of the Society with a Glance at Bad Habits, By anonymous in 1834
As well as Etiquette guides by Emily Post, Charlotte Ford, Miss Manners and the editors of Vogue.

*In which we learn: “A bachelor, accompanied by a young unmarried woman, when stepping accidentally into an open coal or sewer hole, removes his hat and gloves as inconspicuously as possible. It is never correct for young people of either “sex” to push older ladies in front of swiftly approaching motor vehicles or street cars. A young man, if run over by an automobile driven by a strange lady, should lie perfectly still (unless dead) until an introduction can be arranged; the person driving the car usually speaks first.

How different could we be? The fact that in my parents’ third floor bathroom – the one formerly used by my brothers – you can find every copy of MAD Magazine from 1960 through 1980, and that in my kids’ bathroom you can find every MAD Magazine from 1984 through 2000, in no way points to a similarity between my mother and me. No, it is simply that we have both raised children with excellent taste in journalism.

Or could it be that I have been mistaken in thinking myself a radical departure from my mother’s mold? Could it be that, recognizing I could never aspire to her elegance, glamor, poise and decorating savvy, and in order to spare myself comparisons in which I would inevitably fall short, I proclaimed myself to be an altogether other type of fish?

1 comment:

Rebecca Rice said...

I was always so impressed by your bathroom reading material, particularly the collected Shakespeare in the guest bathroom downstairs.

I am delighted now to know its origins. I salute your very talented mother!